The Gift (?) of Suffering1
How do you respond when God gives you something you don’t want? How would you describe your feelings when God brings people, circumstances, and situations into your life that are at best inconvenient and at worst irritating, exasperating, and perhaps even life threatening?
Feeling grateful and appreciative and giving thanks to God when he orchestrates life so that you get what you want is easy. But how do you respond on those occasions when you reflect on what you don’t have but wish you did, or when you think about what you do have but wish you didn’t?
Let me be even more specific. We are seven months separated from Thanksgiving, and therefore about five months shy of the next one. Think back to November of 2012, as you sat around a table with family and friends, a table covered with sumptuous food and luscious desserts. How many of you paused and thanked God for suffering? Did you think it fitting that you should express your appreciation for hardships, setbacks, trials, and afflictions, or did you express your gratitude for a life largely free of opposition and persecution?
I know what you’re thinking! “But Sam, we were at a Thanksgiving dinner, not a funeral! November is the time of year for praising God for the gifts that he has graciously bestowed.” That’s right. And according to Paul, who was writing under the infallible influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, one of God’s most precious gifts to you and me, as his children, is suffering! Look closely at Philippians 1:29 – “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
Evidently the enemies of the gospel in Philippi had become hostile, perhaps even physically abusive, going so far as to threaten the lives of the Christians in that community. Being in prison, Paul obviously can’t do much to help them and is clearly concerned that the opposition they are facing may divide and conquer. In other words, he’s fearful that in the face of the enemy these believers might fragment and weaken in their unity and end up failing to live in a way that is fitting for those who profess the gospel of Jesus. So he exhorts them to stand fast and to stand united, striving together for the faith of the gospel. He is especially concerned that they not be frightened or intimidated by their opponents (all this in Philippians 1:27-28).
The way Paul does this is by reminding them (and us) of something that is as counter-intuitive as anything you’ll find in Scripture. So I’m just going to come right out and say it as bluntly as Paul does: Suffering is as much God’s eternal and gracious purpose for your life as is your salvation! To think of salvation as a divine gift is no struggle. But to speak of suffering in the same way strikes most people as just this side of insane.
Let Paul make his point to you and me with the particular word he chose to employ: “it has been granted” (v. 29a). Most of you know that the Greek word for “grace” is charis. It’s not uncommon for Christians to name their daughter “Charissa.” Even our English term “charismatic” comes from the Greek for grace and refers to our belief in spiritual gifts that God graciously bestows. Well, the verb form of charis is charidzomai. It means to graciously give or to bestow as an expression of favor and love. In Luke 7:21, Jesus is said to have graciously granted sight to the blind. In Luke 7:42 he graciously forgives sin. In Romans 8:32 Paul spoke of God’s “freely” or “graciously” giving us all things necessary for salvation. In each case it is this same Greek verb.
Think about the nature of a “gift.” It is typically something you are glad to receive; it is an expression of the giver’s love for you; it is undeserved. You “pay” what you “owe” but you “give” what no one can claim. And when you receive a gift you ought to give thanks to the one who cared enough for you to make the sacrifice.
Here Paul declares that “suffering” is a gift of God’s grace! It is not portrayed as divine punishment for all your failures. Neither is it discipline designed to straighten you out and alert you to the unrepentant sin in your life. This is no chance happening that unluckily came your way when God was preoccupied with other matters. This was no reluctant concession on God’s part as he wanted to prevent it but for some reason couldn’t. No, it is a privilege, a gift, an expression of undeserved kindness!
Paul’s point, then, is that as many as have received the gift of faith to believe in Jesus for eternal life have also received the gift of suffering that Jesus might be glorified in their life.
Can this really be true? Are we sure Paul didn’t blurt this out following some sort of brain freeze or minor stroke? Well, let’s look elsewhere in the NT to see if we find anything similar:
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). So, if you don’t desire to live a godly life in Christ, you’re ok. No need to worry.
“Remember the word that I said to you,” declared Jesus: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). So, again, if you do not regard Jesus as your Lord and Master, relax. There should be no persecution in your future.
According to both Paul and Barnabas, it is “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). So, if you have no desire or intentions about entering God’s kingdom, you shouldn’t be troubled by the prospect of “many tribulations.”
Paul prays that “no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).
There it is: suffering, persecution, tribulations, all of which have the potential either for good or bad. Suffering can unite and bond families or it can rip them to shreds. Suffering can create confident, dependent trust in God or sow seeds of bitterness and anger and resentment. You know the old saying: “The same sun that hardens clay, melts wax.” Trials and hardships and opposition from the non-Christian world will harden some like brittle clay, baking in bitterness and anger. The same trials, the same afflictions, can melt others, teaching them patience and endurance and building character.
Please do not misunderstand what I’m saying to you, or what Paul is saying. We are to give thanks for suffering not because God wants us to take pleasure in pain; not because God wants us to pretend that evil is good; and certainly not because there is any inherent or intrinsic value in hardship and trials. There is no virtue or joy in affliction or adversity considered in and of themselves.
God wants us to give thanks not because of what suffering is but because of what suffering does; not because of what afflictions are but what by God’s grace we become as a result of them. God graciously grants suffering not because he takes sadistic glee in seeing his children hurt but because he knows that it not only brings them into greater conformity to Jesus but also, and primarily, because it is the most effective way to magnify and glorify him.
To be continued . . .